Hard Questions, Tough Answers - It's the Occupation (May 16, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q: A Palestinian journalist was killed last week during an IDF incursion near Jenin in the West Bank. Then the Israel Police virtually ‘killed’ her again on Friday during her Jerusalem funeral procession. Israeli security officials are still arguing and investigating. What don’t they understand?

A: They don’t understand that they cannot win the media war about this affair because in the eyes of the world, at the most fundamental level, this is about the occupation of the Palestinian people by a regional superpower, Israel. They don’t understand that even when Arabs are involved in an incident inside Israel, the perception can be one of occupier and occupied.

In looking at events near Jenin in the West Bank or even in East Jerusalem (the funeral), most Israeli security officials don’t think ‘occupation’. When Al Jazeera TV journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed--whether by a stray Israeli or Palestinian bullet we may never know--Israeli forces believed, not without reason, that they were preempting the battle to protect Israeli civilians from terrorist attack. Palestinians, on the other hand, truly believed that Israeli occupation forces were attacking Palestinian freedom fighters protecting their meager refugee camp homes.

And the funeral? Palestinians ask why Shireen Abu Akleh couldn’t be buried in Al Quds (Jerusalem) in Palestine with Palestinian flags flying, even if, yes, a few rocks were thrown. Why Israeli flags decorating occupied East Jerusalem couldn’t be removed and thrown away by the funeral procession? Why the Israel Police could not be restrained from beating Palestinian pall bearers who were so busy fending off blows that they nearly dropped the coffin.

Why were the Israel Police there at all? Their original orders were to observe from afar.

Israelis, on the other hand, refuse to tolerate this sort of behavior in the ‘United Capital of Israel’ even if, yes, they are appalled by the clips of Israel Police beating pallbearers and agree that this, at least, has to be critically investigated. Oh, and because Abu Akleh was a dual Palestinian-American citizen, this funeral fiasco now gets special treatment from worried Israeli authorities.


Q: There is a precedent for the fiasco of Shireen Abu Akleh’s death. Muhammad a-Dura in 2000 at the Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip . . .

A: Remember the shocking photos of little Muhammad, first shielded by his father Jamal from the bullets of a firefight, then dead? That incident took place as the IDF ferociously defended Gazan territory and Israeli settlers a mere five years before Israel abandoned the entire mess it had made in the Gaza Strip, settlers and all. The Arab and international condemnation of Israeli occupation forces for killing Muhammad was one of many factors that contributed to PM Ariel Sharon’s eventual decision to leave the Strip.

There are Israelis who to this day go to great lengths to argue that little Muhammad was killed by Palestinian fire, not Israeli. They feed video clips into computers and analyze firing angles and background noises to prove that Arabs killed him. Some claim he is actually still alive: wasn’t he spotted in the Gaza marketplace shortly after the incident?

They don’t get it. It doesn’t matter. It’s the occupation.

Fast forward to Shireen Abu Akleh. We’ll never get to an agreed truth regarding who killed the Al Jazeera journalist. Neither side will ever trust the other’s version, the other’s science. Even if Israel proves forensically that Palestinian terrorists holed up in the Jenin terrorist haven killed their own fellow Palestinian, the Arab and Muslim worlds will stick to their narrative. It’s the occupation.

Nor does it matter that journalists covering wars knowingly risk their lives. That as many as 45 journalists and media professionals were killed worldwide last year, of whom only three lost their lives in the Middle East. That over the past three decades, 190 journalists were killed in Iraq. Forget Iraq; here the problem is still the occupation.


Q: The police unit involved in most of these mishaps is the Border Patrol. Plans are afoot to expand it radically with the establishment of a ‘National Guard’. Why?

A: The Border Patrol, some 8,000 strong, is a semi-military branch of the much larger Israel Police. It often deploys in tandem with the Israel Defense Forces, the army. It is roughly akin to the Italian Carabinieri. Even taken together, the Israel Police and the Border Patrol are woefully understaffed considering that there will soon be ten million Israelis. Until recently, this appeared to reflect a national mindset that conceived of security threats as existing only beyond our borders, not among us.

The events of May 2021 changed that approach. Not only was the IDF fighting Hamas in Gaza, but Arabs were attacking Jews, and in some cases Jews attacking Arabs, in mixed Israeli cities like Acre, Lod and Jaffa. Worse, Arabs in Arab-populated areas of Israel like Wadi Ara were blocking roads and attacking Jewish drivers. It suddenly became evident that in wartime, hostile Arab citizens of Israel who identify with the enemy could be capable of blocking army and police movement inside the country.

In retrospect, May 2021 will eventually be understood as a major point of reference on the slippery slope down which equal numbers of Jews and Arabs between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean are sliding toward a highly conflicted binational reality. That is the long-term picture. In the short term, the security establishment understood in May 2021 that it needed massive internal security reinforcements.

Someone came up with the bright idea to call the new force a ‘National Guard’, aping the United States as Israelis so often do. Never mind that, beyond being a locally-anchored reserve force, its duties would in no way resemble those of America’s National Guard, which deploys as far afield as Afghanistan. Basically, the idea is to enlarge the Border Police (another misnomer, now that it operates well inside Israel’s borders) with a reserve force, to be deployed when Palestinian citizens of Israel are disrupting the peace.

If and when Israel has to fight a war in the north against Iran and Hezbollah, watch for martial law to be declared in Wadi Ara and other parts of the country where Palestinian citizens of Israel could try to obstruct IDF logistics and even attack IDF troop movements. This is Israel’s new domestic reality.


Q: And what about the militias that are proliferating in Israel?

A: These organizations, which of course don’t call themselves militias, are the real precursor to the planned expansion of the Border Police.Regavimin the Negev and HaShomer HaHadash, primarily in the Galilee, emerged from the frustration of local Jewish residents, mainly farmers and herders, with the inability of the Israel Police to prevent the theft of their crops, herds and land by local Arabs and Bedouin.

‘Regavim’ are clods of earth: the context is agricultural. ‘HaShomer HaHadash’, the New Guard, evokes HaShomer of the early pre-state era, when for the first time Jewish settlers armed and trained themselves for protection against marauders. Overall, the message is patriotic, but also a little paranoid, evoking a sense of siege in 2022 Israel.

Ostensibly, Israeli citizens are stealing from other Israeli citizens, and when the police fail to prevent or prosecute, armed vigilantes emerge. But the thieves are Arab and Bedouin and the vigilantes Jews, so these militias inevitably speak with a rightist vocabulary. Worse, the thieves, particularly in the Negev, often hail from ‘unrecognized’ Bedouin villages. They have multiple wives, imported from the southern West Bank. They are grabbing land for their herds, as nomadic peoples sometimes do. They are not merely stealing; they are terrorizing the roads and communities of the Negev, even Beersheva.

Here we have a multi-layered set of conflicts that are radically exacerbated by the failure of the state to govern and the inability of an overwhelmed police force to police. The conflicts are ethnic, national and societal. The failure is national, reflecting a collective refusal by Israel to accept that it has imported the occupation inside green-line Israel. The result is a panicked effort to, hopefully, subsume the militias into a radically expanded police force.


Q: Bottom line?

A: The real bottom line of this inquiry is the growing militarization of Israeli civil society. The occupation is effectively expanding into the heart of the country. And whether the incident transpires in Jenin in the West Bank or at a funeral in East Jerusalem, the mainstream media and the right-religious political mainstream persist in denying that this is militarization or that it has anything to do with the occupation. We are preempting and defending our families. We don’t tolerate Palestinian flags in Jerusalem, the united capital of Israel. We (militias) are merely assisting the police.

Anyone who watches Israeli TV news these days and compares to 20 years ago will grasp the difference immediately. Funerals, mourners’ testimony, military hero worship, religious Jewish values--this is the stuff the country’s news is made of these days. It wasn’t always this way. Israel’s share of the slippery slope is scripted by the right-messianic mainstream. To be sure, there is an ugly Palestinian share as well, but that’s the topic of another inquiry.

This, then, is the slippery slope down which we are descending toward a highly conflicted binational entity. In Israel there is a ‘pretty’ face, too. It is the readiness of right-religious politicians to welcome an Arab Islamist political party into the governing coalition because it avoids the term ‘occupation’ and merely seeks better policing and better education and municipal services. It is the Arab citizens of Israel who increasingly staff our hospitals, our emergency services, the ranks of our professionals.

Finally, there is one additional aspect of recent events that we have avoided in this discussion: public diplomacy or ‘hasbara’. Those who claim that the furor over Shireen Abu Akleh’s death, or over her funeral, is a hasbara failure--‘If only we could explain about all those journalists killed in Iraq’--are insulting our intelligence.